Marlene Dumas' evocative and often provocative work, now on display at the Museum of Modern Art, is full of frightening beauty.
These pictures by the South African native, now based in Amsterdam, bear brutal witness to news events and the contemporary condition. Many are not easy to look at. But the MoMA mid-career survey, intriguingly titled "Measuring Your Own Grave,'' shows why Dumas is a superstar on the world art scene. She has set records for commanding the highest auction price of a living woman artist twice — first in 2005 when her 1987 painting of a posed school photograph, The Teacher (sub a), sold at auction for $3.34-million, then in July 2008 when a 1995 group figure portrait, Visitor, sold for $6.3-million.
It is rare for MoMA to grant such an exhibit to a woman; in the past decade better than 8 in 10 retrospectives and mid-career surveys were given to male artists.
Born in 1953, Dumas grew up on the outskirts of Capetown on her family's winery. Her father died in 1966 due to alcoholism. She studied art in Capetown, but left for the Netherlands in 1976 to study art and psychology.
MoMA curator Connie Butler worked with Dumas to organize the show thematically rather than chronologically, a wise choice given that Dumas' work follows themes of life, death, sexuality, culture and politics.
The show's 70 paintings and 35 drawings seduce, haunt and confront. Who are all these people? Why do they look at us that way? Blindfolded men, a serene Jesus, models, authoritative babies, strippers, corpses, nudes in unusual poses, and even Osama bin Laden comprise her subject matter.
The show takes its name from one of the paintings here, but it's also about art in general, Dumas said in an interview. "How the painter has to get the figure in the canvas. The canvas becomes the coffin or grave of the figure."
In the painting Measuring Your Own Grave (2003), a single figure bows, outstretched arms reach to the edges of the canvas; gestural strokes form legs that dangle. A bent crucifix meets da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, a comparison that points to both artists' conviction that how the human body works is an analogy for the workings of the universe. The paintings are still, and in Dumas' case, many depict the dead. Yet they still invite us into their world.
In the first gallery, The Painter (1994) greets us with the image of a sullen, naked child caught in the act of painting. One hand is caked in blue, the other stained with red contrasting with the light touches of muted grays and flesh tones. Like so many of Dumas' works, the source of the subject was a snapshot, in this case, of Dumas' own daughter. But there is nothing sentimental here, the viewer uncertain whether the girl is beckoning one to look closer, or pleading to turn away.
Dumas completed Dead Marilyn (2008) as her American painting for the exhibition soon after the death of her own mother. The source is a morgue photograph of Marilyn Monroe that Dumas clipped from a Dutch newspaper. No Warholian iconography or glamor here, but an intimate portrait mostly in white and gray tones, a hint of warm pastel and splotched skin. The artist had tried to paint a portrait of her mother at the time, but instead pulled a photo from her loosely kept archive. "I don't seek, I find,'' Dumas said. "People often ask, 'How do you choose the subject matter?' I think it was Picasso who said, 'the subject matter chooses me.' "
Dumas works on the floor and welcomes the role of chance as the ink and paint drip and flow. Her work can be appreciated for its strong imagery alone, but layers unfold with research. An audio guide narrated mainly by the artist and a hefty catalog with essays by Dumas and noted art historian Richard Shiff, among others, accompany the show. Dumas writes poetically, directly and humorously, displaying her copious knowledge of art.
The history of painting is imbedded in images and titles, populating almost every gallery in works such as Ryman's Brides (1994), Reinhardt's Daughter (1995), Magdalena (Newman's Zip) (1995) and The Woman of Algiers (2001).
One of the show's most sublime paintings is Stern (2004), named for the magazine that reported on the German Red Army Faction members who died in their prison cells. Was it suicide or murder? Lush blacks contrast with ghostly whites, and a turquoise mist hangs over a dead woman's gaping mouth in Dumas' interpretation. Her painting was based on a posthumous photo of Ulrike Meinhoff, the former journalist and militant activist. But it also references the work of Gerhard Richter, who painted a series on the same subject in 1988.
The portrait of her friend, Moshekwa (2006), a South African artist, is sparely, yet gorgeously, painted. Studying his purplish-blue forehead, the viewer understands Dumas when she says that she "tried to paint the landscape in his face."
Susan King is a St. Petersburg writer and art history student who is completing her master's thesis on Marlene Dumas. She can be reached at email@example.com.